Israel's Olmert takes on West Bank outposts

Police and settlers clashed Wednesday in Amona, one of 24 outposts to be removed.

As they tried to evacuate this unauthorized West Bank settlement outpost, Israeli forces clashed with hundreds of settlers and their supporters in scenes reminiscent of last year's Gaza pullout but marred by far more violence that injured more than 200 people.

The decision to dismantle Amona, upheld by an Israeli court Wednesday after a predawn appeal, is one of the first steps Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has taken to show that he is following in the footsteps of incapacitated Premier Ariel Sharon.

Moves to rein in illegal West Bank outposts have generally won public approval in Israel. Olmert has suggested that he, like Mr. Sharon, remains committed to the road map for peace. But as March elections approach, the violence at Amona and uncertainty brought on by Hamas's victory may undermine support for the moderate Kadima party, now led by Olmert, and continued withdrawals and negotiations with the Palestinians.

Two members of parliament were hurt in the melee at Amona. But most of those injured were young protesters who said they came in peaceful opposition to the evacuation of this smattering of homes perched above the larger settlement of Ofra, north of Ramallah. Some, however, barricaded themselves on rooftops and dropped rocks, paint, and cooking oil on Israeli forces. Police charged with clubs, injuring scores and raising charges of excessive force.

"We were just sitting on the ground, arm in arm, and they started to beat us with their clubs," says Mor Dahan, a seminary student who had his head wrapped up in bandages, a common sight. "They went in on horseback and they started to hit everything that moved."

He blamed the tough tactics on Olmert's drive to gain support. "Who is he? He's only a temporary prime minister, without a mandate from anyone," cries Mr. Dahan. "If they treat us this way, next time, we'll be more militant with them, too."

But Olmert, in comments to Israeli media, said that the settlers behaved violently. "When there are those standing with concrete blocks and throwing them on the heads of police and soldiers, that is not ideology, but gratuitous violence. It crosses all lines," he said.

No payments for PA

Also Wednesday, Olmert stated that because of the militant Hamas party's win, Israel would not transfer a monthly tax refund to the Palestinian Authority. Israel did not make the payment, which it says averages $44 million, saying it will not deal with a government it deems headed by a terrorist group. The money is based on duties that Israel collects on goods imported to the PA.

"The Hamas people say officially that Oslo and all the agreements should be null and void... so it is totally illogical for them to say that this part of the agreement should be respected," says Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev.

Inside the PA, meanwhile, tensions have also been rising. A bomb was detonated outside the Gaza home of a senior security chief associated with Fatah - the once-mighty political faction defeated last week. Mr. Abbas has tried to restore calm and to set aside international concerns about a Hamas-led government by insisting that security forces will remain under his command, something Hamas disputes.

Tense politics in Israel

The Israeli political scene was already been tense after Sharon's sudden and unexpected exit from public life.

After coming under attack from his own right-wing Likud party for his decision to pull out of the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation, Sharon left to set up the Kadima, or Forward, party. Its platform, never put on paper, focused solely on allowing Sharon to push ahead with plans that were expected to combine unilateral moves with some level of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Olmert has promised to continue in Sharon's path - though many Israelis say they aren't sure what Sharon intended.

Olmert has suggested that he would remain committed to the road map, which includes steps to revive peace talks. In the road map, and in a meeting between Sharon and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, Israel agreed to dismantle "illegal settlement outposts."

Palestinians and much of the international community consider all settlements on land taken in the 1967 Middle East War to be illegal. The Israeli government takes a different view, distinguishing between established settlements that were built as part of official policy, and smaller, newer settlements that have activists have set up of their own accord, in attempts to prevent the land from being turned over to Palestinian control.

Of the some 150settlements in the West Bank, 24 have been declared unauthorized and targeted for demolition. Successive Israeli governments have viewed these settlements as a threat to law and order.

Israeli leaders have said that they plan to keep, and eventually annex, any major West Bank settlement blocs in any final peace accord.

Amona, which sprang up about a decade ago, has long been on the list of settlements targeted for evacuation.

Officials say that the timing of the evacuation is unrelated to Israel's standoff with the Palestinians and the upcoming elections, and was following a legal - not political - calendar.

But no one at Amona, especially among the few thousand activists watching a wrecking crane, thought that rang true.

"They didn't even try to pick me up. They just started swinging and beating people on the head," says Aryeh Ulman, one of the young protesters. "I think this is all for Olmert to show off his muscles before elections."

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